'My stomach dropped': Half-sisters find each other through ancestry search

Two half-sisters got more than they bargained for when they signed up for an online genealogy test — they discovered each other.

Kim McFarlane and Stacey Kennedy didn't know the other existed until this year

Kim McFarlane, left, and Stacey Kennedy met for the first time in June after discovering through AncestryDNA that they're half-sisters. This photo was taken at McFarlane's home in Kingston, Ont., on Sept. 25. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Two half-sisters got more than they bargained for when they signed up for an online genealogy test two years apart — they discovered each other.

Stacey Kennedy, 45, lives in Ottawa, and Kim McFarlane, also 45, lives in Kingston, Ont.

Kennedy thought she knew everyone in her family: her mother, father and the brother she grew up with. But still, an advertisement for the genealogy website AncestryDNA caught her eye, and in 2016 she signed up for a testing kit.

"You see those commercials where somebody thinks they're Italian and they turn out to be Scottish or whatever. So I thought, well maybe [I'll] get a big surprise too," Kennedy said.

I was just stunned. My stomach dropped — shock.— Stacey Kennedy

The results she got about six weeks later were nothing out of the ordinary, and Kennedy moved on with her life in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, McFarlane had grown up knowing she had been adopted, but she didn't know much about her heritage.

Over the years people have asked whether she's Indigenous, Greek, or even Asian, so she signed up for a DNA testing kit in March this year, spat in the test tube and sent it off for analysis.

A stunning discovery

McFarlane and Kennedy both received this notification from AncestryDNA in April, saying a close family match had been discovered. (Submitted by Stacey Kennedy)

In April, the same week McFarlane's genealogy results came back — turns out she's British, Irish and part Scandinavian — another email from AncestryDNA popped into her account.

At the same time, Kennedy, who had received her results two years earlier, got another email from the company.

Both women were notified of a close family match, possibly a first cousin on their paternal side, and were provided with each other's names.

"I sent a private message through AncestryDNA to [McFarlane] basically asking, 'Who are you?'" Kennedy said.

The women exchanged emails after receiving the close family match notification. They quickly discovered they were half-sisters.

As part of her quest to find out her heritage, McFarlane had also opened up her adoption file, revealing the name of her biological mother. That woman told McFarlane the name of McFarlane's father, and his last name matched Kennedy's.

But their relationship wasn't the only surprise.

Not only are they half-sisters, but McFarlane was born just five months after Kennedy in 1973.

I had a really hard time wrapping my head around ... oh, yeah, I have a half-sister and her brother.— Kim McFarlane

Kennedy had known that her parents had split up before she was born, got back together sometime before her first birthday and divorced when she was a teenager.

But she was shocked to learn her father had children other than her and her brother.

"I was just stunned. My stomach dropped — shock," Kennedy said. "But then I thought through it and I'm like, I have a sister, you know? A half-sister. I've always wanted a sister.

"Forty-five years later, I find out not only do I have a half-sister, but she's pretty much my age."

It also hadn't occurred to McFarlane that she might find a sibling.

"I had a really hard time wrapping my head around ... oh, yeah, I have a half-sister and her brother."

Kim McFarlane and Stacey Kennedy met for the first time in June after discovering through AncestryDNA that they're half-sisters. 0:25

Big discoveries aren't rare, expert says

With the rising popularity of genealogical DNA testing, people should know beforehand that they may find out a lot more about their family than they're expecting, said Mags Gaulden, founder of Grandma's Genes, an Ottawa company specializing in genetic genealogy.

It's not always as simple as someone finding out they're Irish after thinking they were Italian, Gaulden said. She's seen some difficult moments — people learning a cousin is in fact a sibling, or that their parent isn't a biological relative.

Those types of unexpected revelations can have a huge psychological effect, she said.

"Any time you come to that kind of a discovery, you have to take it very gently, very slowly, very respectfully, so that you aren't causing a rift in a family."

Gaulden said there are a lot of reasons people sometimes hide information, such as trying to conform to societal norms or not wanting to divulge a pregnancy out of wedlock. And sometimes, biological parents of adopted children just don't want to be found.

'How do you bring that up?'

Kennedy and McFarlane met just four months ago, but their bond is growing.

They talk easily, share a love of history and travel, and are making new discoveries about each other, like how Kennedy dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween one year when she was a child, and how McFarlane loves the Star Wars film franchise.

Kennedy, left, and McFarlane look at each other's childhood photos. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

But it hasn't been an easy journey. They've had to tell their families, including Kennedy's mother, who had no idea her ex-husband had fathered another child.

Kennedy hasn't yet told her father that she found McFarlane, but she expects the conversation will be awkward.

"How do you bring that up? I'm not sure," she said.

McFarlane holds a photo of her parents, who adopted her as a newborn. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Better warning needed, Kennedy says

Kennedy wants genealogy websites to carry a more noticeable disclaimer warning people they might get a life-altering surprise.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, AncestryDNA wrote that its customers can choose to opt in or out of making themselves visible to potential matches, and that the company offers resources to help people with sensitive inquiries.

"Ancestry recognizes that the information we provide to our customers can be surprising and at times, life-changing," the statement from a spokesperson reads.

But Kennedy said the disclaimer didn't prepare her for her results.

"Never in a million years did I think I had a relative out there that I never even knew about, and I think people need to know because you don't see that on the commercials," she said.

"They don't talk about people [finding] out about people that they didn't know existed."

About the Author

Kimberley Molina

Reporter

Kimberley Molina is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked in Calgary, Red Deer, Alta., and northeast B.C. You can reach her at kimberley.molina@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @KimberleyMolina.